Time traveler Alvin Youngblood Hart's albums have darted from crusty Delta fingerpicking and hollering to Hendrixian hellfire to crunchy, primal rockin' blues, all with the ring of authority that comes from complete commitment to the music. This time, he's set the wayback machine to the early '30s, using guitars, mandolin, banjo, and a lot of heart to interpret tunes by Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Leadbelly, and others. Somehow, the dust of old Mississippi, the state where the Oakland-born musician now resides, seems to have gotten into his blood. Hart sounds like Parchman Farm's newest inmate as he wails and moans through "How Long Before I Can Change My Clothes," plucking notes from a National resonator guitar. Chiming out chords and quick runs on banjo, he makes Odetta's "Chilly Winds" seem like they're carrying the voices of lost ghosts, recounting their lives of misery under Jim Crow's wing. Hart tends to take many of these classics, like Patton's "Tom Rushen Blues" and Leadbelly's "Alberta," at slightly slower tempos, which gives him more time to squeeze gut emotions from his lightly graveled phrases and lets his pluck-and-drone playing work its hypnotic effect. Stark and impressive for the power Hart generates alone, this may be the acoustic blues album of the year.
With so many fine-to-great Messiah’s already available, who stands to benefit from this lackluster, hardly serviceable offering? William Boughton’s conducting is pedestrian at best–the performance lumbers along politely, ignoring every one of Handel’s many opportunities to soar. This is especially excruciating in the choruses: rarely have “And he shall purify”, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates”, and “Let all the angels of God worship him” not to mention “Hallelujah” advanced with such leaden, dispassionate propriety.